Erik Norlander (keyboards), Mark McCrite (guitar, vocals), and Don Schiff are the core members of the progressive rock band Rocket Scientists. The group’s first album was 1993’s Earthbound, – since that time the band has released a number of albums and videos over the years each building on a legacy of quality prog art.
Earlier this year they released a fantastic EP called Traveler on the Supernatural Highways that is part of a broader album coming soon from the band. The EP consists of one long epic instrumental work – the multi-part title track, followed by a smoking hot version of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” If this recording is any indication, the new album is going to be their best yet.
I spoke to Erik and Mark this August at his home studio in remote Placerville, California just west of Lake Tahoe. We were surrounded by many vintage and modern day keyboards, and started with a question about his use of these instruments:
EN: I’m not really a collector – I just like classic keyboard sounds, and the best sounds I can get. If you’re a guitar player, no one is going to think twice about you playing a Les Paul Goldtop- it’s a classic guitar that’s been around, what, 50 years? But then if I play a synthesizer that’s that old or even 20 years old – suddenly I’m “going vintage.” Actually I’m just going for great sounds, and I happen to love the Minimoog and Rhodes sounds from the 70’s and my Hammond organ, which is from 1939.
MM: It’s similar to how many people are into pressing new music on vinyl because they like the sound of vinyl, and it’s not like that’s retro – it just sounds a certain way.
EN: That’s exactly it – I’m not trying to go retro, I’m not trying to sound like Yes in the 70’s – I love that – but I don’t want to do that again – I want to make new music, and when I make new music like the Galactic Collective with all these instruments, I go for sounds that seem current.
There’s an interesting thing about bass sounds I use like the modular Moog bass. I recently got to know Michael Boddicker who was a major session guy in the late 70’s and 80’s – played keys on Michael Jackson’s Thriller – tons of films, he’s on a million things. We were talking about big Moog sounds and listening to some of my stuff and he said, “those great big stereo basses you do – we couldn’t do that in the vinyl days – the lathe wouldn’t cut it with the modulation that low.” That’s why the Moog bass on a lot of those older albums doesn’t sound as big as what I’m doing now.
D: I never hear a shrill keyboard sound out of your stack.
EN: We work hard to not do that!
D: The guitar sounds very fresh and the drum fills are so tight
EN: I think our generation is unique in that late 70’s and 80’s prog music went in a more metal direction, and then you had Dream Theater which is really on the metal side – so that became part of our musical vocabulary. I guess like any artist, you pick what you like and don’t like – we take some and leave out the rest. No Swedish death metal voices here.
MM: Its almost like prog music split up – what retained the “Prog” label was the more metal sounding work, but I hear a lot of progressive influences in things like Radiohead, and for some reason, that hasn’t attracted as much of the prog audience. Crowded House is one of my favorite bands – they are kind of Beatlesque, but they also have a lot of elements you’d hear on old Moody Blues records – I see it as all part of the same legacy.
EN: Greg Stone back in the KLOS days said the first prog album was Sgt. Peppers, and I agree with him. I think it was released the month before I was born!
D: Erik, how much work does it take you now to dial in the sound you want for a solo or for a particular song – a lot of fine-tuning and effort?
EN: The smart-ass answer is it takes 47 years to dial in that sound! I can do it very fast now but only because I’ve spent my whole life learning how this stuff works and how to dial it in. It’s about building up sound libraries – digital instruments and analog instruments like this [points around his studio] and knowing exactly how to set an envelope. Last night we were working on this track, and Mark said I should do some Buchla modular sound effects, and I went directly to get that sound. It wasn’t a question of “let me load up 50GB of sample libraries and go through them all, or let me pull these 10 instruments out of their cases and see what might make this sound.” Fortunately, I go right to it and know how to achieve it.
This instrument here – the Alesis Andromeda – which I helped design – was really the first truly analog polyphonic synthesizer of the modern era. You started with the Minimoog, then we got into instruments you could play polyphonically – instruments like the Prophet 5 and the Yamaha CS-80 and the Oberheim keyboards and that grew and grew until digital became more practical to use, and then you started putting samples into keyboards. Eventually by the mid to late 80’s, analog synthesizers completely fell out of favor. I remember buying 3 Minimoogs from a rental house in LA for $300, which would now be worth 30 times that.
By the end of the 90’s I pushed to make a new modern analog polyphonic synthesizer. The guy who owned Alesis, a guy named Keith Barr who passed away a few years ago, he was the designer of the famous MXR guitar pedals, like the Phase 90 and the Distortion Plus, the little MXR stomp boxes that you see on every guitar player’s pedal board for the last 30 – 40 years, and he was an amazing analog designer. I convinced him to design some analog chips needed so it could fit in a smaller keyboard. So we built this Alesis analogue keyboard – and that’s actually how I met Bob Moog and his daughter Michelle. When I had the green light to do that project, Keith was designing the chips, but then we needed an analog design engineer to design the circuit boards, and I said, “let’s get Bob Moog.” He was already building the new Minimoog Voyager at the time, and I didn’t know about that, so he was not able to work on this project, but he was able to advise from a distance!
D: Erik, when is “the wall” needed as opposed to one of your smaller Moogs?
EN: Functionally there is very little it does that a modern synthesizer can’t do – it is modular by nature which means you can patch it together in ways that you can’t patch a Minimoog or Moog Voyager, but that generally just gets you bizarre sounds – Dr. Who sounds and things like that. For the actual musical tonal sounds, the difference between the modular Moog and any other synthesizer is essentially just quality. There’s something about the discrete electronics and the build quality and the hand wiring and all that voodoo.
There’s multiple voices – multiple sounds at one time that are possible. It has a little sequencer built into it – I can also send it sequences from the computer – more modern stuff which I do all the time, and you can play it by plugging in any keyboard into it via its MIDI interface. I do have the original Gate / CV which was the original way to interface a keyboard to a synthesizer – so even the keyboard was modular – just a controller – telling the synthesizer what note to play and how long to play it. You can do that from a keyboard, from the instrument itself, from a sequencer, so I do all of the above. It’s set up to do 4 sounds or voices at a time. For example, live, I’d have one voice that would be sequenced, one that would be for a lead sound, one for a drone that I would set up. I wired it up so I could trigger the drone from the modular itself – the whole idea of a drone is you have just one note that you hit and you let it go on while you do your spacy intro or break-down. Walking up to this big wall of synthesizers and triggering that sound is fun to do in concert as ultimately it’s a show – you gotta be involved.
You can also see the blinking lights, which I had custom built, which helps tell the audience when that instrument is being used. Otherwise it’s just a big black wall with wires coming out and the sound could seemingly be coming from anything. When I’m going to a keyboard and soloing and you see the lights on the modular come up then suddenly you know I’m playing it – this engages the audience in the instrument.
EN: I think there is a time to use electronic instruments and a time to use acoustic. And when you are doing a James Bond song, you have to use real brass! I’ve got great brass sounds – as good as any keyboard player, but when we were going to do that track I thought – I’ve got to have real horns. I worked with these guys on the album Hommage Symphonique, which was a covers album – it has a version of “Conquistador,” (by Procol Harem) and we used them again. When it came time to do “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” there was no question we had to have the horns. Mark had been a fan of that song as long as I’ve known him.
MM: When we did the UFO theme, I was like “dude, another sci-fi song? Can we do a James Bond song this time?” Lana also covered “You Only Live Twice” and “From Russia With Love.” Don’t get me wrong – I love the sci-fi stuff too, but I’ve been a fan of Bond music since I was 5!
D: Mark, for your instruments, do you collect guitars, or focus on a few?
MM: I find myself going more for the acoustic guitars. I have a really old Martin guitar that I love, and a beautiful Guild 12 string – I just got a baritone acoustic Taylor. I went to see David Gilmour for my 40th birthday and was surprised that a lot of the slide guitar on “Breathe” and so many others was him actually playing the lap steel, so I went out and bought one. I was really torn – the collector in me wanted to get and old 50s Rickenbacker or a Supro that looked like a toilet seat but I listened to the newer Chandlers and decided I’d rather have something really clean and really hi-fi.
EN: I bring out my old Guild when Mark flies up here from LA to record. It wasn’t an expensive guitar, but it’s one of those magical ones where everything is just right on it. It’s not pretty, but it sounds great.
MM: I have a 16 year-old daughter who plays in bands, so lately I’ve been buying basses for her – she’s got nicer ones than me now.
MM: It started out as part of the album we’re working on now and there were pieces of this track that we were trying to figure out as far as what the sequencing would be on the record – and it became obvious that all these instrumental pieces belonged together and so we decided to split it out and get that out there first.
EN: Originally we wrote them as movements of a larger piece, and on the full album we thought about doing “part I” then a vocal song, then “part II” then another vocal and so on – and it just felt jerky going back and forth – it sounded better as one epic symphonic piece. We decided to put it together as one thing. If we put that on a regular album we felt it would overshadow the album or itself be overshadowed – we did not set out to do an EP, but that’s how it came out.
MM: The project started when we realized that 2013 was the 20th anniversary of our first album release so and we wanted to do something to honor that. We decided the best way would be to make a new album… though we kind of missed our deadline! The Supernatural Highways EP and the album we are working to complete now are all one album really – recorded last summer – we just ended up with over 2 hours of music which would not fit on one album. The first bit is out now and the rest will fit on the coming album, which at this stage has no title.
[Ed note: watch the band playing this new track “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways” live, in studio, on You Tube is an excellent way to become more familiar with the band, their style, and immense capability as purveyors of quality prog music.]
D: When is the new album expected?
EN: We plan to release the full album this year not too long from now. Mark is doing the last bit of tracking – some harmony vocals [points out vocal booth.] Then I’m going to mix it – then over to mastering engineer, Maor Applebaum. He’s turned into a major guy – the “new thing” for our kind of music – he’s done Billy Sherwood, the new Yes, some metal – he’s just awesome. He will latch onto something and won’t let it go – saying for example, “Erik I can work with this but you really need to change the mix because the bass is doing this in the wrong way – I can master better if you give me the right mix!” I really appreciate that quality. So, this goes over to him soon.
MM: I’m really excited about the new record!
EN: Don Schiff is the third element in the Rocket Scientists machine. His style and approach are a big, if not obvious, part of the band’s sound. Don comes from a jazz background. His father was a sax player and band leader, and Don cut his teeth in the music business by being the house bass player at The Las Vegas Hilton … which ironically is where the “Raiding the Rock Vault” show now plays, the Vegas show that featured my old band mates, John Payne and Jay Schellen. Don played with every major act that came through the Hilton including Elvis – yes, really! He learned the vital role of the bass in all different styles of music, how it can make or break the groove. Don also loves classic Motown and what I would call “vintage pop R&B” stuff like Blood, Sweat and Tears and early Chicago. So you inject that approach and influence into a band like Rocket Scientists, and the results are really unique. We’re a prog band that grooves! Oh, and of course Don plays these wonderful, bizarre instruments from genius inventor, Emmett Chapman: the Chapman Stick, the NS/Stick, and now the new “half-fretless” NS/Stick that he is using all over these latest Rocket Scientists recordings. You can see that one in the “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways” video on YouTube. Half of the neck is bright stainless steel, so it’s easy to spot that bass!
EN: Gregg Bissonette is from Detroit, and he started out playing with Maynard Ferguson, the jazz legend, and then from there, he did the natural thing and joined David Lee Roth’s band! Since then he’s just become one of the most in demand drummers in the field.
MM: He did the Supernatural record by Santana as one of his big things – he did the last ELO record and toured it, Joe Satriani, James Taylor, a ton of those Baked Potato gigs, etc.
EN: It’s easier to figure out who he has not played with!
MM: I think of myself as the Adrian Belew type that pulls a prog band in a pop direction – Beatles, David Bowie – Neil Finn is one of my heroes along with Jon Brion, Wendy and Lisa from Prince’s band, and all of Steven Wilson’s stuff. Actually, I met Steven at a festival show Rocket Scientists played with Porcupine Tree back in 1999 and I’ve helped him out with some guitar gear over the years. I’m a big King Crimson and UK fan, along with Sylvian / Fripp. I have 3rd row center seats for the upcoming Crimson show in Los Angeles!
D: Mark, what are you going for in your vocal delivery and how have you developed your style?
MM: I’ve never really tried to articulate it before, but I guess I’m just going for honesty and emotion. It took me a long time to really find my voice. When I first started singing, I equated a great vocal with great pitch, and was pretty disconnected from the lyrics I was singing. When Erik produced the vocals for our first album “Earthbound,” he helped me to focus more on vibe than pitch and helped me to find a much stronger delivery, but something was still missing. While I liked those vocals, I didn’t think they sounded like me. I befriended Kevin Gilbert around that same time and his biggest criticism was that I was over-singing and should consider using way less vibrato. I started experimenting, but really didn’t like where I landed on the “Brutal Architecture” album – the vocals were honest, but they were too stark and I think they were ultimately a bit weak.
After that, I played for a while in a side project called River with an amazing singer named Pat Meyer, and also began playing in Lana Lane’s touring band. They’re both simply born with an amazing natural gift and I learned a lot just from watching them operate. I finally started focusing more on dynamics and tuned into a style I’m comfortable with on the third Rocket Scientists CD “Oblivion Days,” which I have stayed with ever since. I’d like to think I’m borrowing bits from Kevin, Neil Finn, Justin Hayward and Buck Dharma.
EN: The answer is astonishingly simple. When Mark and I work together, it’s Rocket Scientists. When we do a Lana Lane album, it’s very vocally oriented and centered around Lana. We write the songs that way, and create the production that way. My solo stuff is really just me – writing and arranging by myself. The other musicians are almost session musicians.
MM: I think it’s also a mindset – you think about it differently when you are creating for another medium or a different band. I’ve written a lot of things for Lana, in general I always have an idea of what the final product is going to sound like. By imagining her singing it in my head, the writing just goes a certain way.
The new EP has been out now through the summer and comes highly recommended. Again, expect an album shortly that will be the Rocket Scientists best yet, full of the kind of driving, modern progressive music one would expect from these talented musicians. A supernatural highway well worth traveling.